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The perceived environment of special education classrooms for adolescents: a revision of the Classroom Environment Scale.

ABSTRACT: The Classroom Environment Scale (CES), originally developed for use in traditional public school classrooms, was revised for use in special education classrooms. The scale, which assesses students' perceptions of various aspects of the classroom, was administered to students in 79 special education classrooms in 16 residential and day treatment schools serving special education students with behavior disorders and emotional disturbance. Psychometric analyses showed that only seven of the nine aspects of the classroom found in the original CES were reliably reported in special education classrooms. The revised scale was found reliable for use in special education classes in residential and day treatment settings.

* During the past 20 years, a distinctive contribution of community psychology has been in the area of environmental assessment. Researchers have generated several theoretical models and much research data (see Barker, 1968; Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Kelly and Associates, 1979; Kelly & Hess, 1987; Moos, 1974; Trickett, 1978, 1984). The accumulated impact of this area of research and intervention shows that (a) environments can be meaningfully conceptualized and measured and (b) environments affect behavior in systematic ways. As ecology assumes increasing influence in community psychology (Tolan, Keys, Chertok, & Jason, 1990) and is increasingly seen as important in special education (e.g., Leone, 1989; Trickett, Schmid, & Leone, 1991), environmental assessment is a priority concern.

One of the most productive research initiatives in environmental assessment has been the social ecological approach developed by Moos and his colleagues (Moos, 1974, 1979). This approach has been used to assess the social environment of settings in education, rehabilitation, work, and residential arrangements for elderly people. Within this perspective, the social environment is defined by the perceptions of members of that environment. The assumption is that people behave in terms of their perception of the situation they are in (see Magnussen & Endler, 1977). Evidence for the validity of this assumption is found in the research literature linking social climate to such outcome variables as dropout rates of psychiatric patients attending community treatment programs (Moos & Schwartz, 1972) and such educational outcomes as student learning (Frasier & Fisher, 1982) and absenteeism (Moos & Moos, 1978). Variations in social climate, defined as the shared perceptions of people about the environment they are in, predict a variety of outcomes across several different types of settings.

The purpose of this study is to report on the extension of one of those social climate scales--the Classroom Environment Scale (CES) (Trickett & Moos, 1973)--to classrooms that provide special education services for adolescents. The CES is a 90-item, forced-choice instrument that assesses nine different dimensions of the classroom environment, including such areas as the emphasis placed on involvement, the degree of task orientation present in the classroom, and how clear the rules governing classroom behavior are. These nine dimensions are subsumed under three broad domains of classroom experience: (a) Interpersonal Relationships, (b) Goal Orientation, and (c) System Maintenance and Change. Table 1 shows the nine original CES dimensions, or subscales, and sample items. (See Moos & Trickett, 1986, for an overview.)

Like the other social climate scales, the CES has been shown to possess both adequate reliability and validity. Profile stability for the nine subscales over a 2-week interval, using regular public high school classrooms, ranges from .91 to .98. CES dimensions have been shown to correlate with student satisfaction (Trickett and Moos, 1974), teacher-student verbal interactions (Kaye, Trickett, & Quinlan, 1976), and absenteeism (Moos & Moos, 1978). The accumulated data not only provide supportive evidence for the importance of assessing the social environment of the classroom, but also suggest that student perceptions are valid indicators of what the classroom is like.

The CES was developed for use in regular public school classrooms, and almost all of the data reported thus far have come from such schools. It may be argued that the CES may be used in its original form in special education classrooms, but various rationales suggested the value of assessing rather than assuming its applicability. Conceptually, special education classrooms for adolescents meet a different set of needs and issues than could be adequately dealt with in regular public school classrooms (see Milofsky, 1976). The smaller size and individualized instruction of the special education classrooms. added to the learning disabilities or behaviOral disorders of the adolescents in them, suggest the possibility that their ecology is not only quantitatively but qualitatively different from that found in regular public secondary school classrooms. Thus, some environmental dimensions found in public schools may not be applicable to special education classrooms.

A second issue is the degree to which the CES is comprehensible to adolescents in special education settings. Typically, when the CES is administered, students read the items; respond; and, if necessary, ask questions about the meaning of specific items. Adolescents in special education programs, however, are more likely to have both learning disabilities and attention deficits that may affect their ability to complete the CES and provide reliable data. Thus, the conditions under which the CES is most comprehensible to adolescents in special education settings is important to ascertain.

Third, there is a limited amount of empirical data on the CES with adolescents with mental retardation or behavior disorders. Simpson (1980), for example, studied the relationship between CES-defined classroom climate and adolescent achievement and self-concept, using a sample of nine self-contained classrooms for adolescents with mental retardation. His results were provocative: Student achievement was related to the degree of perceived organization and control present in the classroom, and self-esteem was related to high classroom emphases on interpersonal relationships and support. However, Simpson reported no psychometric data on the CES with students with mental retardation. Forness, Guthrie, and MacMillan (1982) used the CES to examine the relationship between the behavior of children with mental retardation in 28 classrooms and teachers' perceptions of the classroom social environment. They noted that classroom structure across settings appeared to be related to students' on-task behavior. However, like Simpson, Forness et al. provided no psychometric information on the CES' applicability to special education classrooms.

A recent study by Leone, Luttig, Zlotlow, and Trickett (1990) cast some doubt on the usefulness of certain aspects of the CES with adolescents in special education settings. Using a sample of 38 special education classrooms from schools in the Washington, DC area, Leone et al. found that, in general, the CES could be understood by these adolescents, though occasionally the CES had to be read to them. However, internal-consistency analyses of the nine CES subscales showed four of the nine subscales (Involvement, Teacher Support, Teacher Control, and Innovation) to have reliabilities of .5 or less. The size of the sample and its limited geographical area raised the possibility that reliabilities may be even lower in a larger and more nationally representative sample.

For these reasons, we undertook the present study of the applicability of the CES for special education classrooms. We considered two questions involving the reliability and validity of the CES in special education classrooms:

1. Is the CES a psychometrically sound instrument in its current version for use in special education classrooms? Here the intent was to assess (a) the understandability of the CES for special education high school students and (b) the internal consistency of the nine CES dimensions for a special education population.

2. With respect to initial validity, does the CES differentiate among types of special education and nonspecial education classrooms in ways that are conceptually meaningful? Here, three types of classrooms were contrasted: special education classrooms in residential special education settings, special education classrooms in day treatment settings, and regular public school classrooms. The three types of classrooms were selected to highlight potentially different kinds of contrasts. For example, it is plausible to predict that regular public school classrooms, because of their larger size and less individualized approach to interaction, may be perceived by students as more orderly and organized than special education classrooms. Finding such a difference would then add construct validity to the student perceptions.


Recruitment of Schools and Overall Sample

The special schools and programs that participated in the study represented geographically diverse areas. The 16 special schools participating in the study were located in the Midwest (n= 6), Northeast (n= 1), Southeast (n= 3), and the midAtlantic region (n= 6). Four of these schools involved residential settings, and 12 were day treatment schools. All the special schools and programs were in segregated facilities, apart from public school programs. These schools enrolled students with behavior disorders or those with emotional disturbance.

To provide a traditional public school contrast, three schools in ethnically and socioeconomically diverse communities near Washington, DC, also participated. We selected regular education classes as a contrast to special education classes in special school settings for several reasons. First, the number of special classes in comprehensive secondary schools for students with behavior disorders is limited (U.S. Department of Education, 1990). Second, regular school classes, precisely because of their differences in structure and function from special education classes, serve as a useful contrast for assessing construct validity. That is, one expects differences between these classes and those in special education settings. Third, generating data on an instrument that could be used in both special education and general education settings provides directly comparable information. This information can be particularly useful for those preparing students for the transition back to regular public school classes.

Schools participating in the study were recruited through direct contact with principals and directors of those settings. The administrators all attended an informational meeting at a national conference where the purposes of the study and its procedure were explained. Conceptually and practically, the special schools provide what is often referred to as psychoeducational programming that includes behaviorally based, child-change strategies, as well as individual and group counseling. These schools represent typical special school settings for students with "serious emotional disturbance." None of the residential or day treatment schools participating in the study was affiliated with psychiatric hospitals or clinics.

Students in both special and regular education settings were asked to complete the CES for the class in which the CES was being administered. Given the relatively small size of the special schools, special education classes represented a range of core classes and electives in these schools. Public school classrooms were randomly selected from among the core subjects of English, mathematics, and social studies. In each school, students completed the CES during one class period on a specific day.

Table 2 shows the overall nature of the sample in these three types of schools. The samples are comparable in age, ranging from 10 to 21 years old and averaging 14.79 to 15.75 years, depending on the type of school. The samples differ somewhat in overall ethnic composition and gender balance. Specifically, whites are proportionally greater in residential special education settings compared with the other types of settings; males predominate in both types of special education settings, whereas approximately equal numbers of males and females are found in regular public school classrooms.


In special education settings, the CES was administered by classroom teachers who had been instructed to follow the standardized procedure of giving students the questionnaire and being available for any questions. Teachers were also asked to note any special problems in administration and alterations in administration that were necessary. For example, prior research with the CES suggested that it was sometimes useful to have the teacher read the CES items to the class. Data from regular public school classrooms were gathered by graduate students in special education and psychology; these students were trained to follow standardized procedures. In all settings, administration was usually complete in 30 min.


All the protocols were scored at the University of Maryland according to standard procedures (see Moos & Trickett, 1986). Protocols with more than 10% of the items left blank (e.g., more than nine items missing) were deemed unusable. This resulted in a loss of less than 5% of the data. Thus, it seems that the CES can indeed be completed by most students in special education settings.

To ascertain the psychometric properties of the CES in special education classrooms, the nine CES dimensions found on the original scale were assessed for their internal reliability (Cronbach's alpha). Only two of the original nine subscales (Competition and Innovation) had internal consistencies of less than .4. Efforts to improve the reliabilities through deleting select items failed to make any appreciable difference. Thus, we omitted these two dimensions in subsequent analyses. We then conducted further analyses on the remaining seven dimensions.

First, all items within each dimension were correlated with the overall dimension to see which contributed most. Items with low (<.2) item to dimension correlations were dropped from the dimension. Next, items remaining in the dimension were subjected to factor analysis (varimax rotation). All items with factor loadings greater than .4 were retained for the final version of the scale (CES-SP). This revised CES included 58 items that assess seven dimensions of the classroom environment. Table 3 shows these seven scales, the number of items in each, and the alphas. All original CES subscales or dimensions of the Relationship domain and Systems Maintenance domain are retained. Task Orientation remains as a Goal Orientation dimension, whereas Competition for grades drops out, as does Innovation, the sole system-change dimension of the original CES. Possible reasons for the low reliability of these two dimensions are raised in the Discussion section.

Intercorrelations for Special Education Students

We then completed intercorrelations among the new scales, using only special education students in the sample (N= 464). Table 4 shows the results of this analysis. Correlations range from .02 to .57, averaging .31. Both the range of the subscale intercorrelations and their average intercorrelation are comparable to those reported in the original CES (Trickett & Moos, 1973). The highest correlation is between student involvement and the degree of order and organization present in the classroom (.57), suggesting that students are engaged when classes are organized and orderly. (This was also the highest correlation reported in the original CES, .49.) The lowest set of correlations are between Teacher Control (the rulestrictness dimension of the classroom) and the three Relationship Dimensions (Involvement, Affiliation, and Teacher Support). These correlations indicate that these two central aspects of the classroom--interpersonal relationships and strictness of rules--are independent.

Comparison of Special Education and Regular Public School Classrooms

A final set of analyses involved the comparison of student perceptions of the three types of classrooms: special education classes in residential settings, special education classes in day treatment settings, and regular public school classrooms. To perform exact comparisons, we used only the items remaining in the seven-dimension CES-SR with both regular public school and special education classes. To assess differences in these types of classrooms, we conducted one-way analyses of variance (ANOVAs) on each of the seven subscales, using the aggregate classroom data as the unit of analysis. Table 5 shows the results of this analysis. Five of the seven dimensions discriminated among the three types of classrooms. Only Teacher Support and Rule Clarity were perceived similarly across classroom type.

Table 6 shows the data broken down by type of classroom. The patterns that emerge show several differences between regular public school classrooms and those in the two types of special education settings. The data suggest that, compared with regular public school classes, students affiliated with each other less in residential setting classrooms. In addition, residential setting classrooms were perceived as less orderly and organized, with teachers exercising a greater degree of control than was perceived in regular public school classrooms. Special education classes in day treatment settings also differed from regular public school classes in being seen as less orderly and organized. Further, they reported a lower task orientation and level of involvement in the class. Finally, though comparable in most respects, the two types of special education settings differed somewhat from each other. Classes in residential settings were seen as more task oriented and controlled by the teacher than classes in day treatment settings.


The primary purpose of the present study was to see if the Classroom Environment Scale, originally developed for use in normative junior high and high school classrooms, was appropriate for use with adolescents in special education settings. A second purpose was to compare and contrast classrooms in two types of special education settings with each other and with a sample of regular public school classrooms. The intent here was to develop an initial understanding of the construct validity of the revised scale (CES-SP).

This study supports the use of the CES-SP in special education settings in two ways. First, teachers who administered the instrument reported that more than 90% of their students could successfully complete the task. Although certain accommodations, such as reading items aloud, may be necessary, the scale is appropriate for use in special education settings for adolescents. Second, the concepts defined by seven of the nine original CES scales have adequate reliability, though these reliabilities are somewhat lower than those reported in regular classrooms (see Moos & Trickett, 1986). Though none of these subscales includes all 10 items from the original CES, the concepts in the CES-SP retain the same meaning as in the original scale.

The two subscales that were not reliably reported by special education students-Competition and Innovation--probably reflect more on the ecology of special education classrooms than on the particular wording or comprehensibility of the items themselves. As shown by Table 2, special education classes are small, reflecting the emphasis placed on personal attention and individualized approaches to learning. In such settings, the concept of competition, for example, does not emerge as an important mechanism for furthering student learning. Innovation, on the other hand, refers to variety in classroom practices at different times. This idea loses meaning in special education classes, where individual instruction predominates over variations in approaches to group learning found in more traditional public school classrooms.

The difference in reported reliabilities between these two subscales and the other seven for the special education sample, plus their relatively high reliabilities reported in regular public school classrooms (.67 and. 80, respectively, reported in Trickett & Moos, 1973), suggests that the Competition and Innovation subscales of the CES are not ecologically valid concepts in special education classrooms. Constructs found in one kind of ecological setting (e.g., regular high school classrooms) should not necessarily be generalized to other settings (e.g., special education classrooms). Thus, use of instruments such as the CES should be tied to a conceptual analysis of the types of classrooms involved and should not rely exclusively on those psychometric properties reported in the literature unless these properties are based on a comparable sample of classrooms.

Within the seven CES dimensions common in both special education and regular public school classrooms, both similarities and differences were found. All three types of classes placed similar emphasis on Teacher Support and Rule Clarity, suggesting that teachers are perceived as equally supportive and as providing comparable clarity of rules. Though it may be surprising that the small class size in special education settings does not promote more teacher support, emphasis on this aspect of the classroom is relatively high across all classes.

Classroom differences among the three types of settings support the construct validity of the CES-SP. For example, the greater regular school classroom emphasis on order and organization may reflect the need for more structured approaches in dealing with larger classroom size than is found in special education settings. The lower interest and involvement in class activities in day treatment settings may reflect differences in the structure of classroom events. Day treatment classes may experience more disruptions and more mobility among students than in residential or regular education classes. Further, it is not surprising that students in residential settings report less affiliation with their classmates than do students in other settings. Adolescents in residential facilities have been taken out of familiar family, neighborhood, and school ecologies and placed with age mates who have experienced social and academic difficulties in those other settings.

The implications of the development of a CES appropriate for use in special education classes are several. First, on the policy or program level, the CES-SP can provide one source of information about whether a policy or program is being experienced by students the way it is intended. Several administrators, for example, have already used the CES-SP to evaluate programs for adolescents with behavior disorders and as a source of information in planning staff development activities. In addition, the CES-SP can provide data for individual teachers about the way their teaching style is being perceived by their students. If, for example, their goal is for students to cooperate with one another, then it is useful to know if students perceive that cooperation in the class is indeed happening. Special education teachers have informally reported that they find the CES-SP valuable as their own "report card" from their students.

The CES-SP can also be used to understand the experience of individual students in the classroom. Such data on the perceptions of the adolescent can complement outside assessments to provide a more complete picture of the adolescent in context. In addition to its role as an assessment tool, the CES-SP can be used to assess change in individual students over time. When specific programming is instituted, or when critical life events occur in the adolescent's world inside school or out, the CES-SP can provide a distinctive type of data from a distinctive source: the adolescent himself or herself.

The CES-SP also opens up several kinds of research questions. For example, data from regular education classrooms suggest that perceived classroom environment affects a variety of important student outcomes. Comparable research on the impact of different kinds of perceived classroom environments in special education classes can improve our understanding of how different environments produce different educational outcomes. Research in regular education classrooms also has focused on what kinds of classrooms different types of students need to prosper. The same kind of classroom is not best for everyone. The CES-SP can promote this kind of research by specifying types of classrooms whose differential effects on students can be studied.

Finally, the CES-SP can facilitate change in the classroom. This change can be accomplished through a teacher-student discussion of the overall classroom profile to see if there are any aspects of the class that either the teacher or students wish to change. If some changes are subsequently attempted, the CES-SP can serve as one index of whether student perception of the classroom has changed in the anticipated direction. One particularly important benefit from this strategy is the value and importance it places on students' perceptions of their classroom environment. It communicates to students the importance staff places on understanding the world of the classroom through their experiences of it.

The study reported here has several limitations, and further research in several areas is important to pursue. First, the sample was limited: The special education classrooms, though geographically diverse and representative of program types, represented only classrooms for adolescents with behavior disorders or emotional disturbance. A broader sample of types of special education settings, such as resource rooms or programs for adolescents with learning disabilities or mild mental retardation, is needed to extend the generalizability of the scale. Second, test-retest reliability work needs to be done to assess the stability of student perceptions over time. Finally, the kinds of validity studies, evaluations, and change studies previously mentioned are needed to further our understanding of how this approach to assessing the classroom environment can be of benefit to special educators and the adolescents they teach. Work thus far, however, is promising with respect to the CES-SP as an assessment tool relevant to special education classrooms.


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EDISON J. TRICKETT, Professor, Department of Psychology, PETER E. LEONE (CEC #504), Associate Professor, and CAROLYN MOLDEN FINK, Faculty Research Associate, Department of Special Education, University of Maryland, College Park. SHELDON L. BRAATEN (CEC MN Federation), Principal, Harrison School, Minneapolis Public Schools, Minnesota.

This research was supported by the Center for Research and Development of the College of Education and the Computer Science Center, University of Maryland, Address correspondence to Peter E. Leone, Department of Special Education, Benjamin Building, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742.

Manuscript received February 1991; revision accepted September 1991.
 Classroom Environment Scale (CES) Form D Definition of
Subscales and Sample Items (True and False) Relationship Domain
 1. Involvement: Measures the extent to which students pay
attention to and show interest in the activities of the class.
 Students put a lot of energy into what they do here (T).
 Students daydream a lot in this class (F).
 2. Affiliation: Measures the extent to which students work
with and come to know each other within the classroom.
 Students in this class get to know each other really well(T).
 There are groups of students who don't get along in
this class (F).
 3. Support: Measures the extent to which the teacher expresses
a personal interest in the students.
 The teacher goes out of his/her way to help students (T).
 Sometimes the teacher embarrasses students for not knowing
the right answer (F).
 Goal Orientation Domain
 4. Task Orientation: Measures the extent to which the
activities of the class are centered around the accomplishment
of specified academic objectives.
 Almost all class time is spent on the lesson for the day (T).
 This teacher often takes time out from the lesson plan to
talk about other things (F).
 5. Competition: Measures the amount of emphasis on academic
competition within the class.
 Students try hard to get the best grade (T).
 Students usually pass even if they don't do much (F).
 System Maintenance/Change Domain
 6. Order and Organization: Measures the emphasis within the
classroom on maintenance of order and the degree to which the
activities of the class are well organized.
 Activities in this class are clearly and carefully
planned (T).
 The teacher often has to tell students to calm down (F).
 7. Rule Clarity: Measures the degree to which the rules for
conduct in the classroom are explicitly stated and clearly
 The teacher explains what will happen if a student
breaks a rule (T).
 Rules in this class seem to change a lot (F).
 8. Teacher Control: Measures the degree to which student
conduct in the classroom is delimited by the enforcement of
 When the teacher makes a rule she/he means it (T).
 The teacher is not very strict (F).
 9. Innovation: Measures the extent to which different
modes of teaching and classroom interaction take place in
the class.
 What students do in class is very different on different
days (T).
 Students do the same kind of homework almost every day (F).
 Internal Consistency of CES-SP for Special Education
Sample (N= 464)
CES Subscale No. of Items Alpha
Involvement 9 .609
Affiliation 9 .578
Teacher Support 7 .702
Task Orientation 9 .561
Order and Organization 9 .638
Rule Clarity 7 .666
Teacher Control 8 .551
 Note: CES-SP = Classroom Environment Scale-Revised for
Special Education (Trickett & Moos, 1973).

[Tabular Data Omitted]
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Author:Trickett, Edison J.; Leone, Peter E.; Fink, Carolyn Molden; Braaten, Sheldon L.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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